Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The plains of Spain are mainly for the grains

                                                                                        January 8, 2013

Wheat along the margins of the Camino fields, September 5, 2012, between Fromista and Carrion de los Condes.

In September 2012, my husband, daughters and I spent a couple of weeks walking through wheat fields along the Camino Frances as part of our trek from Pamplona to Santiago. Before the Romans arrived around 100 B.C. E., the Celts walked west along this Camino Frances route to Finisterre, the end of the earth, the furthest west point that they knew. The Romans used the route for wheat fields, and to transport iron and gold east from the mountain mines to Rome itself. Around 450 or 500 C.E., the Visigoths came in and conquered the area, along with the rest of Spain, and ruled until the Muslims arrived in the early 700s C.E.  The Moors held most of Spain, including the Camino route, except for the northern sliver of Asturias that remained in the hands of the (by-then-Christian) Visigoths. In the early 900s, rulers in the north began to push the Arab conquerors south, and by 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella ruled all of Spain.

As we set one foot in front of the other along the dusty, rocky farm paths and country roads that now constitute most of the Camino, I wondered how it was that these fields had supported wheat crops for two thousand years. Or did they? My 4-H days in southwest Michigan taught me that without rotation and fertilizers, crops exhaust the soil. Did the Romans practice good agriculture routines? Did they even know about them?

The Camino Frances between Fromista and Carrion de los Condes, along harvested wheat fields, September 5, 2012.

It’s been difficult to find much information – they were the “Dark Ages” after all, and my Google searches have not always been the most brilliantly designed. The search query, “agriculture in northern Spain in the Early Middle Ages” has not been as productive as desired.

What I’ve been able to eke out so far suggests that once the Romans left, much of the area’s population did as well. The land devoted to wheat may have been used for smaller subsistence farms. At some point around the late 1400s, shepherds came in, and sheep laid waste to much of the land (Spain was noted for merino wool, and kept its monopoly until the mid-1800s by not allowing any sheep to leave the country). I always thought that shipbuilding for the Spanish Armada devastated the forests, but the sheep helped. Apparently, it’s only in the past 200 years at most that the Romans' fields have been planted to wheat again. Besides the wheat, in 2012 vineyards, corn and sunflowers competed for much of the land along the Camino.

Sheep between Fromista and Carrion de los Condes, on the Camino Frances, September 5, 2012.

As I get time to read more, I’ll come back to this topic, and share the news from the Early Middle Ages.

References: Empires of Food, by Evan D. G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas, 2010.  “Sheep and the Camino,” by E. O. Pederson, 2005, available online at  http://www.americanpilgrims.com/camino/essays/camino_sheep_rev.pdf

Roman road and bridge between Cirauqui and Lorca, about km 694 on the Camino Frances, August 28, 2012.

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